Where parrots are black and pigeons are green

Five years ago today, I set off on one of the biggest adventures of my life. Granted, I'm only 23 and so my life hasn't been particularly long yet and though five years seems an age ago to me, I know it's not really that long ago. To be fair, I haven't even been on that many adventures to compare it with. Regardless...
Forest S17. The fragments of Sainte Luce's once bountiful littoral forest are now small from slash and burn agriculture as well as logging. They are numbered S(n), which facilitates their management and conservation.
Five years ago today I set off for Madagascar, where parrots are black and pigeons are green. It was during my gap year between baccalaureate and uni, which I mostly spent painting and raising money for the excellent Azafady, the NGO I was to volunteer for in Madagascar. I had originally decided to take a gap year because I wasn't sure whether to pursue a degree in biology or whether to make a U-turn and study art instead. Sure enough, Madagascar made up my mind for me. Despite the trip's significance and many a promise to write about my time there, I never really did (although I wrote about lemur transects for Azafady's blog here: http://azafady.us/blog/?p=299). I was content with the forest background of this blog being Malagasy littoral forest and the title being the Malagasy word for chameleon ("tambarikosy"). So, full of nostalgia, I thought it time to give a brief account of my 6 weeks in Madagascar. Prepare for my sloppiest and sappiest blog post yet! You'll be relieved to know that it is mainly photos.

Both parents and my boyfriend at the time accompanied me to Barcelona airport at some ungodly hour of the morning – personally I couldn't see what the fuss was about, sure it was my first time travelling outside Europe by myself to a land I didn't know, but what was the big deal? After two days of airports and planes, I found myself exhausted, confused, and alone in a country where nobody knew what I was saying and I didn't know what anybody else was saying. Those previous months of trying to learn Malagasy had clearly gone out the window. Although I did manage to order a bowl of plain rice at Antananarivo airport – I will never forget the word "vary". After a stunning though terrifying ride on a local flight from Madagascar's sesquipedalian capital to the coastal city of Tolâgnaro (or Fort Dauphin), I was kindly met by Azafady's volunteer coordinator Tsina. The two conservation programme coordinators who I was to work with in the field had also just arrived in Fort Dauphin, after their first plane in the north of Madagascar had gone up in flames on the runway upon landing. Luckily neither they nor any other passengers were hurt, but the loss of one small aircraft would continue to disrupt flight schedules six weeks later when I was to leave.


Tolâgnaro, also know as Fort Dauphin and the capital of South-East Madagascar.

I was dropped off at the Anôsy, the hotel/hostal I was staying at until the volunteering programme started in a few days. Till this day I still remember the terror and anxiety I felt once I was left in my bungalow room at the Anôsy. It hadn't occurred to me that my phone wouldn't work 9,000 km away from home and I had not brought my laptop with me. What did people do before the time of phones and personal computers? How could I tell my parents that I had arrived safely or that I suddenly felt lost and trapped in a new world? The volunteers coordinators had advised me not to leave the hotel once night fell (at 6 PM) or to wander around with my camera in view. How was I to get supplies? Most worrying of all, how was I to take photos of this new place if I could not have my camera out?! I'd kept a camera close since my first blue plastic Fisher-Price at the age of three. Exhausted, I fell asleep and awoke that evening with a sounder head.

For the next few days, I proceeded to ignore the advise of travel guides and volunteer coordinators and took to exploring the strange gem that is Tolâgnaro. I bought a Malagasy phone and eventually managed to contact my parents, and probably tried all the available vegetarian food in town. Every now and then I'd see a white person and suspected the rest of the volunteers were trickling in. A fellow conservation programme volunteer, Izzie, arrived at the Anôsy a couple of days before the programme started and it was a comfort to be able to speak to someone.

I was not expecting that ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) to land on my head.
On the first day with Azafady, we were taken to the bizarre but beautiful Nahampoana Reserve. Nahampoana was basically an XIX century French aristocrat's hobby. The park was a mish mash of vegetation from across the island, inhabited my an equally diverse assortment of the island's animals. It was like a compilation of many of Madagascar's charismatic habitats in one. There was spiny forest and bouncing sifakas, giant bamboo and elusive bamboo lemurs, endangered palms and radiated tortoises, swampland and crocodiles, of course, a large group of inquisitive ring-tailed lemurs. Albeit a highly habituated groups of ring-tails.

Spiny forest, Didiereaceae
Verreaux's sifaka, Propithecus verreauxi
Very large bamboo

Nile crocodile, Crocodylus niloticus.
The following day, we were off to the bush. There were only 6 volunteers on Azafady's Conservation Programme (ACP) that April, led by the passionate biologists Amanda and Steve and the knowledgeable Malagasy guides Sylvester, Hoby, and Hery. Both the British and Malagasy staff's enthusiasm for the island's flora and fauna and love for its people were contagious (not that one needs to be encouraged to feel excited about Madagascar's wildlife). We were also accompanied by the lovely cooks Ninetti and Vaea (whose name I cannot spell, much to my embarrassment). The other volunteers came from diverse backgrounds: there was British student Izzie, who has since gone on to graduate from the University of Oxford with a degree in biology; Martin, the Swedish chef; Jana and Nasser, Kuwaiti cousins and bloggers; and Jenn, an American whose profession escapes me because she always seems to be doing a million things and having a million adventures.

April 2010 Azafady Conservation Programme team
The journey into the bush exhibited equal shares of stunning scenery, ...
... dodgy bridges, ...
... and heartbreaking poverty.
 After a long ride down beaten dirt roads in an old repurposed prison bus, over a few dubious-looking bridges, we reached our base camp in Sainte Luce. Their was little to our base: a few small clearings in which to set up our tents, a small hut with a clay stove to act as a kitchen, and a long half-walled thatched hut with a table and benches running through it, which would become dining room, communal area, and storm shelter. There were wooden cubicles where we'd bring a bucket of water – pumped from the community well near the camp and left to warm up in the sun – for washing and, of course, a long drop hidden among the forest.
Top left to bottom right: Tents (mine's the tiny black one on the left) and the little kitchen hut and long dining hut in the background; the inside of the dining hut; wash cubicles; and last but not least, the long drop.
Sainte Luce is an area in south-east Madagascar, a few hours drive north of Tôlagnaro. The local farming and fishing community is scattered around three village centres of thatched-roofed wooden huts. Despite the community's poverty and vulnerability to diseases like malaria, the people are rich in spirit and kindness to say the least. It's humbling to know when you're amongst people who would share their last bowl of rice with you. Although French has been an official working language in Madagascar since colonial times and English was made official in 2007, people in rural areas (most of the population) generally only speak their own regional dialect of Malagasy, which can differ considerably from the Malagasy spoken in the capital. So, in order to be able to communicate even a little bit, the guides would take turns teaching us Anôsy – the local Malagasy dialect – every other day. We were offered to have a lesson every day, but I seemed to be the only one up for that.




The "local" cattle, zebu. "Local" because I believe that humans probably introduced them to Madagascar really...

Although Sainte Luce's communities are mainly fishers, very few if any people can swim, and so contact with the Indian Ocean can be hazardous. In that month of April 2010 alone, three fishermen perished in the waves. Requiescat In Pace.

Some form of orthopterans getting it on...

We all adapted quickly to our daily routines. I was the only person there to survey lemur populations for the month, although the others came out as well at different times. The other projects were focused around herpetological surveys, community sustainability work, and "poop-potting" – ie stuffing zebu poo into small plastic bags to grow critically endangered Dypsis palms in. Although I got to help out with the full range of activities, I can't deny that I was happy as Larry to spend my mornings and afternoons (and sometimes nights) walking quietly through Sainte Luce's beautiful but sparse littoral forests. I was told to schedule in a rest day every week, which I was reluctant to (I had come that far to spend as much time as possible in the forest!), so some sort of nasty microbe eventually forced me to... But I shan't go into that. Here are some cool animals and plants instead!

A little frog in some form of Pandanus palm. 
BABY TENREC (Tenrec ecaudatus).


Eastern woolly lemur, Avahi laniger.
As my main job was surveying lemurs of the area, I did of course see my fair share. Often there were several days when we wouldn't see any lemurs, but it felt worthwhile when we'd see them – especially when we'd come across not one, not two, but whole FAMILIES of lemurs.

Mainly we'd see collared brown lemurs (Eulemus collaris) and Eastern woolly lemurs (Avahi laniger). Like most of Madagascar's native flora and fauna, these two species are threatened by habitat loss due to slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging. Collared browns are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, while the Eastern woollies are classed as Vulnerable, both are suffering decreasing population trends.
Collared brown lemur FAMILY! Eulemur collaris. I've donated this image to ARKive.org
Collared brown lemur, Eulemur collaris. I've donated this image to ARKive.org
Collared brown lemur, Eulemur collaris. 
Eastern woolly lemur, Avahi laniger. I've donated this image to ARKive.org
Counting lemurs.
The days were hardly short of unique wildlife, but as is true of most forests around the world, the dusk is when Sainte Luce really came to life... Including many of the lemurs, such as the brown mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus) and the fat-tailed dwarf lemurs (Cheirogaleus medius). That is there official common name, fat-tailed dwarf lemurs, although it is a fair description as well.
Many lemur species are nocturnal, including this little brown mouse lemur (Microcebus rufus). 
The Malagasy pygmy kingfisher, Corythornis madagascariensis 
There was such a diversity of chameleons I wouldn't be able to tell you what almost any of them were...
These woollies (Avahi laniger) just look pure evil here...
Even the roof of our dining hut came to life! 
Sorry spider-haters – I have purposely made this image smaller than the rest out of sympathy for you (and following the response of many of my relatives in respect to my posts about Ecuador and profile pictures featuring tarantulas on my face...). Anyway, if you know me, you probably expected more spiders. This guy was very big and very cool though. We affectionately referred to this spider as the "Steve's boot spider". If that didn't horrify you enough, I also witnessed one crawl out of someone's clean laundry. Yeah.


At times we'd have excursions to the surrounding areas we wouldn't usually frequent for our work. The beach lay just a 40 minute walk from camp, but my interest in it had little to do with sunbathing or swimming, and more to do with the scencery. The old volcanic rock which rests under Sainte Luce becomes exposed when it meets the edge of the land, creating a sharp contrast between the littoral greenery and the dark rock that an angry ocean had combed and polished into strange shapes.





Another excursion we did was to S17, a lush and then substantially less disturbed section of forest. I can't remember if S17 was a little estuary islet or if it was just an impossible long way around (especially without any automobiles at our disposal, or roads for that matter), but either way we had to get there by canoe.

I'd say most of the day that we spent at S17 we actually spent on the beach.
A couple of times we went crocodile hunting. Well, we were hoping to record their presence rather than actually hunt them. Perhaps surprisingly, Madagascar's only native crocodilian is the Nile crocodile, more usually associated with North-east Africa. In Madagascar they are smaller than their mainland cousins, a common phenomenon among species with mainland and island populations. Unfortunately, the only crocodile we saw during the entire trip was the one we'd seen basking in the Nahampoana reserve. But the excursions allowed us to witness pink sunrises over the river and involved exploring the mangrove-lined estuary by canoe.




We also tried to spot crocs in the river running through Sainte Luce, also to no avail.
Though we mainly lived off rice and beans and bananas, the food was excellent. For breakfast we got one piece of mofo akondro (boiled banana bread), two mofo menakely (sweet, deep-fried dough balls), whatever fresh fruit was available, and "breakfast rice", a sort of gooey tasteless rice much improved by the addition of locally-produced honey.

Breakfast (left) and lunch (right).
Day geckos often joined us for breakfast, they particularly enjoyed the drops of spilt condensed milk. Phelsuma lineata.
The time I spent in Madagascar remains the best trip of my life (so far). The experience definitely played a major part in my decision to continue studying biological sciences, not only because of how incredible the place and its wildlife are, but because all that beauty is just a fraction of what the island country once beheld. It is estimated that since humans arrived on the island around 2,500 years ago, Madagascar has lost over 90% of its forest cover. While this figure is hard to prove, Madagascar bears all the marks of a ravaged natural haven and you don't have to be a biologist to see that the island's forest have been broken. In just a few hours, we could walk the entire length of a forest doing a lemur transect – and while doing a lemur transect we would walk very slowly and stop to look around every 10 minutes. You can see where one section of forest starts and ends and the landscape is a patchwork with small tufts of forest poking up between deforested plains and crops.





Rosy periwinkle, Caratharanthus roseus.

The weaving ladies of Sainte Luce gave us a lesson in
making bracelets and rings from grass. I still have mine.
Western society is partly to blame for the destruction of Madagascar's environment – the pet trades' hunger for bright colourful frogs and lizards and the price on precious hardwoods still fuels illegal trade and logging, though much of the damage was done when few legislations were in place. A lot of the historical and current destruction is being done by local people. But that a trickier situation. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. So when your family is at risk of starvation, what is one fewer rosewood to the forest? Should you not be able to clear a patch of forest to grow your food and to use as firewood to cook your produce? Plenty of people die of causes now preventable or treatable in the West. During my stay, at least one child in the small community was lost to malaria. We were all on pricey anti-malarials which, though effective for short-term use, wouldn't be a suitable prophylaxis for people continuously exposed to the parasitic disease and we currently don't have a solution to the malaria problem, but we do have means of treating malaria once contracted, they're just too expensive. Children run around with the rosy periwinkle (Caratharanthus roseus) at their feet, a plant which has led to the development of an effective treatment for childhood leukaemia in the West, but which doesn't usually find it's way back to Madagascar.
Local children and inspirational Peace Corp volunteer
Stephanie Bitstriz have a grooming session. I believe there
was a parasite living in that little girl's foot.

We can't protect Madagascar's environment over its people, but at the same time, the people's future depends on the environment. It's a problem we see over and over across the world, particularly where biodiversity is richest and people are poorest. There is no simple solution. While it may be too late to save some species (indeed, some have already been lost, including some of Madagascar's largest recent animals), the only real hope for both the people and the environment of this incredible island is sustainable development. That in itself is a complicated topic I won't go into here. But for now, Azafady are helping to improve the livelihoods of the people of Sainte Luce and other South-eastern Malagasy communities, through education, sanitation, and empowerment. The ladies of Saint Luce, for instance, now share a weaving and sowing business, Stitch Sainte Luce (the cause aside, I think this stuff is stunning in its own right and have several of their products!).

Madagascar's national tree, the traveller's palm, Ravenala madagascariensis (left) and a baobab (right).


The travesty that was my journey home...

During my time volunteering, we caught word that the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull had erupted and that there were major disruptions to European air traffic. I secretly (okay, not that secretly) wished this would prevent me from leaving Madagascar and allow me to head back out to the bush with the conservation team. However, by the time we headed back to Tôlagnaro, most flight routes were back to normal in the Northern hemisphere. But I should have been careful with what I wished for...

As I said near the start of this post, a small plane had gone up in flames upon landing on the runway somewhere in North Madagascar. Though no one outside of Madagascar (and few people within it) really heard about the events, thanks to the government-controlled media of the country, six weeks on this was still causing disruptions to flights within the country. So when I showed up at Tôlagnaro's tiny airport for my flight to the capital, it was shut... I headed back to town and enquired as to what was going on at Air Madagascar's local office. After much insisting, they agreed to pay for my food and board and reschedule both my in-country and international flights (believe me, they were very reluctant to do this). My youthful looks may have played some part in this outcome, as the person I was speaking to was surprised that my passport said I was 18 – he thought I was a child of 14-15.

The next few days were spent on fruitless trips to the airport as flights were postponed and cancelled again and again and again. In the meantime, I spent about as much money calling my parents asking them to change my connecting flight between Paris and Barcelona as they did changing those flights. Eventually I got to the capital, was rushed through the airport and landed in France. But not Paris Charles de Gaulle... Or Paris at all. The flight was making a stop at Marseille and was supposed to be continuing on to Paris. However, after sitting on the plane in Marseille for three hours, the Paris-bound passengers were let off. After a hectic and tiring day of arguing, we were offered an Air France flight (Air Madagascar's parent airline) that was stopping in Paris before going onto Barcelona. But because the flight we were unloaded from was only going as far as Paris, they wouldn't have allowed me to continue on to Barcelona. Despite the fact that the delays till now and their inability to communicate meant I (my parents...) had not only had to continuously pay to change my flight, but that they'd just made me finally miss the last flight Paris-Barcelona flight of the day. So Air Madagascar and Air France pretty much abandoned me, with no refund or any for of compensation. Actually, they gave me a 5€ voucher to get a sandwich from the Marseille airport café, but as a vegetarian back in the Mediterranean, that was of little use. Getting the flight to Paris and spending the night without any money didn't seem like a realistic option. Instead, my mother decided to drive to Marseille from Sitges, and pick me up. Where would I be without that woman?! (well, not born, for a start)

The inconvenient ending to that trip didn't detract from it in anyway. I wouldn't have thought so at the time, but at least it's a story to tell...

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